Blog Post

INTERVIEW: Eric Gordon on Participatory Chinatown

Participatory Chinatown project website -

Interviewed by:
David Palter, PhD student in U.S. History, University of California, Santa Cruz
Amanda Shuman, PhD student in East Asian History, University of California, Santa Cruz

Eric Gordon leads the Participatory Chinatown project, which investigates the use of 3-D gaming technologies to augment the community planning process. When we decided to interview Eric, we framed our questions around issues related to the gaming and technology aspects of this project, as well as on how the participation of a diverse community has influenced the project.

What is the purpose of this project -- in your eyes and from the perspective of the Asian Development Corporation?

This project is about fostering the conditions for the public to deliberate about urban issues.  Too often, the public are presented with abstract drawings or models of urban spaces and are asked to provide feedback.  The result is often uninformed, reactionary commentary that does little more than provide support for the foregone conclusions of planners.  Our goal with this project is to transform the deliberation process so that instead of simply providing feedback, participants are informed by their personal experiences with the space in question.  They inhabit a space, play a game in the space, and are therefore able to converse with each other and city officials and planners in a way that they can claim authority.  They can make "I" statements instead of statements about the abstractions of urban processes. 

Our working with ACDC has been quite productive.  Working in Chinatown has forced us to consider issues of language and to produce a bilingual game.  We hope the game will supplement the verbal deliberation process so that talk (which typically requires a common language) is not the only method of participating in the process.  Playing the game can itself be a productive method of engaging with the community and communicating with officials.

In what ways has the project changed along the way?

In our first iteration of the project, we used Second Life.  It is here that we developed the concept of augmented deliberation. Essentially, we worked out the process by which people could inhabit a virtual space and a physical space at the same time as a means of enhancing the communicative potential of the deliberative forum.  But this process was lacking some structure of engagement.  We received criticism from architects and planners that we gave too much control to the public.  We responded to that criticism by building game rules and some content into the process.  Now, our participants have to learn about the neighborhood in the game before they make suggestions about changing it.  Since our first project in Second Life, we have more fully developed the capacity of role play.  Now all players assume a character and are asked to make decisions about the neighborhood as someone other than themselves.  We experimented with this in a low-tech way in our first project.  In participatory Chinatown, role-play is the foundation of the game.

The project incorporates face-to-face interaction with a 3D online environment. What are the benefits and limitations of the online environment?

The online environment is not intended to replace the face-to-face.  While the game will be available online, the hope is that the online engagement will encourage people to get or stay involved in the face-to-face aspects of community involvement.  While many people celebrate the potentials of Gov 2.0 to increase engagement through non-proximate interactions, I still want to err on the side of physical co-presence.  The online environment enhances conversation, and deepens connection to other people and to places.  The nature and depth of this connection is what we will be studying when we implement the game on April 1.

In what ways has the involvement of the Chinatown community influenced your views about the possibilities of social media? (For example, how does this project expand on or differ from your previous projects?)

Our involvement with the community has so far been limited to working with youth. We have mostly worked with Chinatown youth to help develop characters, photograph the environment and test the game.  Social media has not been the major factor in these interactions.  The involvement of the youth has been structured around the process of making a game.  That has been very productive.  They have been really excited and motivated to learn about the neighborhood and talk with people in the community because those activities have been framed by the process of making a game.  So, to be clear: the social media we have employed is game design. 

How do you see the virtual and real spaces influencing one another in this project? For example, could you explain how the game results will influence the non-virtual community, and how playing the game will expose youth and other community members to urban planning processes?

I want to avoid thinking about virtual and non-virtual communities.  We are talking about a local community that has multiple channels for engagement.  Typically, we are offering a multi-media channel - in other words, simultaneous face-to-face and virtual immersion.  Participatory Chinatown (and Hub2 more generally) is a re-design project.  We want to re-design the community meeting to include a wide range of experiences born of game play, social interaction, and deliberation.  The redesign of the community includes both the spatial design of laptops in a room and the temporal design of extending the meeting to gameplay outside of the 2 hour meeting time.  But, it's all the community meeting.  That's our target. 

Who do you see using the game the most and why?

The game will be used by residents of Chinatown, residents of the metro area that identify with Chinatown, and planners and city officials. 

To what extent is the Chinatown community involved in your project and/or creating the game? Could you discuss the involvement of community youth in the planning or writing of the game?

We are working with a corps of youth volunteers who have interviewed Chinatown residents to inform the game's characters, photographed the city for the models, and tested the game.  They will continue to be involved as "technology interpreters" during the meetings.  During the community meetings, we will have about ten youth walking around the room and helping people with the game and answering questions.

How will the game be made accessible to people of different linguistic backgrounds or generations?

It is currently bilingual.  The game can be played in English and Chinese.  During the meetings we will try to place the Chinese speakers together so that they can converse with one another.

On your personal blog and on HASTAC, you state that in the Participatory Chinatown game:

"Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize.  In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation.

"We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances, not simply to say those people dont know what theyre doing and what theyre missing."

Could you describe the process of writing scripts for the game?

This has been an extensive process.  We have fifteen characters, each with unique bios, three different quests (work, live, and play), and about 30 NPCs (each with dialogue corresponding to specific characters).  We started writing the script by playing a paper version of the game, and it is just continued from there. 

Could you explain the 3D game a bit--for example, how you envision people interacting with it? What do you see as the learning curve for using the game?

The game includes two major components.  In the first, you pick a character and are tasked with one of three quests: find a job, find a home, or find a social space.  To do this, you wander around the environment and collect cards that are given to you by other players, NPCs, or by finding the place in the environment.  The card has information about a job, home or social network.  There are a total of nine cards that can be collected in the course of 30 minutes.  Once this part is complete, players are asked to rank their cards in order of their character's preference.  Once all players have submitted their requests, they are told which card they received.  Some may get their first choice, some may not, and some might not get anything.  From here, the players are asked to discuss what happened, the experience of their character and why they think their character succeeded or didn't.  After this discussion, the players return to the game, this time as themselves (not as their character).  They are asked to play another card game, where they prioritize values for the future of the neighborhood.  Based on these values, and the chosen values of everyone in the room, the group is assigned one of three planning scenarios.  The group then enters that scenario (which shows a future version of the neighborhood) and is prompted to answer nine questions.  Once they do this, they are reassembled to discuss their answers and how their character's experience might have influenced that decision.


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